"I'm not going to basketball practice next week," Troy announced to his dad just before leaving for school. "The coach is stupid and I don't like the other guys that much anyway."
"But you've been excited to play on the high school team for years and you just made the team!" he replied.
"Well I changed my mind. I just don't feel like it!" Troy said and stormed off to school.
Troy's room was plastered with basketball posters, ribbons and a championship jersey pinned to the wall. Basketball had always been the love of his out-of-school time. His dad couldn't figure out why the change of heart. He was especially worried because the transition to high school wasn't going well on the academic front either. His son's grades were a lot lower than they had been in middle school.
Sheyla walked into the living room with tears in her eyes. "What's the matter?" her grandpa asked.
"I've been studying all night for my chemistry test tomorrow and there's no way I'm going to pass," she responded, sounding panicked.
"But you've been getting A's in the class all year! What makes you think this exam is going to be so different?"
"It just is! There is so much to memorize. I've gone through it a hundred times, but I'm sure I am missing something. This is going to be a disaster."
Sheyla didn't sleep at all the night before the exam and woke up early to study more for the test. She got through the exam, albeit with an intense stomach ache. When the tests were handed back the following week Sheyla had the highest grade in the class.
The cost of trying to be perfect
While there might be multiple reasons for Troy to want to quit the basketball team or Sheyla to panic before every exam, they likely have something in common: fear.
Sheyla's fear shows up as relentless overachieving and an almost desperate commitment to avoid mistakes. Troy's shows up as discouraged withdrawal and increasing levels of underachievement.
Perfectionism has many faces. Some perfectionist people, like Sheyla, are highly motivated, though highly stressed, "overachievers." Others, like Troy, shut down in the face of self-doubt and indecision. Both experience a profound fear of failure, judgement and mistakes.
If these scenarios sound familiar to you, it may be time to start learning more about perfectionism. While many think of perfectionism as hard wired, it is clear that positive change is possible.
That's why we are so grateful for the work of Dr. Tom Greenspon. Check out his book Moving Past Perfect, for an easy-to-read and comprehensive overview of what perfectionism is, where it comes from, and what we can do to move beyond it. His "Perfectionism at a Glance Checklist" can be a helpful starting place to reflect on your child's (and your own!) actions and thinking.
What is perfectionism?
Many successful people attribute their success and drive to perfectionism. Yet it is clear that people can be persistent, hardworking, and driven to succeed without experiencing the emotional burden of perfectionism. Moreover, perfectionism tends to undermine success over the long term.
So what distinguishes perfectionism from striving for excellence? The profound fear of mistakes.
It's not that nonperfectionists aren't disappointed or hurt by failure, but perfectionistic people are often devastated by it. Greenspon reminds us that,
"Striving for excellence is vitalizing and energizing, and it opens the possibility of continued growth. Perfectionism, by contrast, is deadening, bringing with it feelings of hopelessness and personal failure."
While we all want our children to succeed, we don't want that to come at the cost of their wellness and mental health. A Buddhist proverb reminds us "There are two kinds of fear. One keeps us alive. The other keeps us from living." We learn best and achieve the most when we can be resilient enough to learn from our mistakes.
What can you do?
If you think that you or your child is suffering from perfectionism, Greenspon suggest four elements of creating a "culture of acceptance" that will help your child move past perfect:
- Empathy. It can be tempting to interpret your child's behavior through your own experience. For example, you might mistake your child's unwillingness to put in effort as laziness. Instead it might be a fear of failure behind the withdrawal. Work to better understand your child's emotions and experiences.
- Encouragement. Reflect back to your child what you value about them and appreciate. Tie praise to your child's observable strengths and effort and normalize mistakes. Our tips for effective praise might be helpful.
- Self-Reflection. Encourage your child to start reflecting on how they feel about mistakes, success, and judgement. Try using questions like, "What are your greatest fears in school?" or "What does a mistake mean to you?" or "Do you get anxious about the possibility of making mistakes?"
- Dialogue within your family. It may become clear that your own perfectionism or inadvertent modeling is part of your child's challenge. This can be vulnerable for you too. Once you are engaged in dialogue you can start problem solving solutions together.
Another powerful antidote to debilitating fear of failure is the growth mindset. Check out our post about it here and let us know what you think!